I have been blessed by much of Dr. John Robbin’s work, such as his defense of justification through faith alone against the New Perspective on Paul heresy, but I must take exception to the following position statement he recently distributed:
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Date: Thu, 15 Sep 2005 12:36:25 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Defending Roman Catholic Baptism
We hold no theologian in higher esteem than John Calvin, whose theology has blessed millions of souls. But even Calvin nodded now and then. One of his errors was asserting that Roman Catholic baptism is Christian baptism, and many other Reformed theologians, aping Calvin, have defended Romanist baptism ever since Calvin's time. One of Calvin's arguments is so laughable that one wonders if Calvin wrote it tongue in cheek. In the Institutes (Book IV) he wrote:
"Thus it did not harm the Jews that they were circumcised by impure and apostate priests. It did not nullify the symbol so as to make it necessary to repeat it. It was
enough to return to its genuine origin. The objection that baptism ought to
be celebrated in the assembly of the godly does not prove that it loses its
whole efficacy because it is partly defective. When we show what ought to be
done to keep baptism pure and free from every taint, we do not abolish the institution
of God, though idolaters may corrupt it. Circumcision was anciently vitiated
by many superstitions, and yet ceased not to be regarded as a symbol of grace;
nor did Josiah and Hezekiah, when they assembled out of all Israel those who
had revolted from God, call them to be circumcised anew.”
That is an argument offered in defense of Roman Catholic baptism by one of the most
brilliant Protestant theologians of the last 500 years. Seeing
how such a great mind can fall into laughable absurdity should keep us all humble.
It should also warn us against a Protestant traditionalism, now becoming
popular in some circles that ranks the opinions of theologians higher
The Trinity Foundation
September 15, 2005
I will seek briefly to explain in this article why Dr. John Calvin’s view regarding catabaptism is not absurd but true. (Catabaptism is the view, even by many otherwise paedobaptists, that Roman Catholic baptisms should be considered invalid, and hence the party so baptized should be [re-]baptized by a Protestant church. Among Presbyterians, catabaptism first became prominently promoted by nineteenth century American Presbyterian theologian J.H. Thornwell.)
Given my position against Romish Mass attendance, as expressed in my article at http://www.puritans.net/news/lordmackaycase081505.htm, some may be surprised that I would defend the validity of Roman Catholic baptism. But the two issues are very distinct. The basis for not attending the idolatrous Mass is the Biblical command to flee idolatry (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 10:14). One cannot attend an idolatrous religious service and reasonably argue to have been in compliance with the command to flee idolatry. The basis for accepting the validity of a triune baptism (i.e., a baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is the Biblical command to be so baptized, once for all time (see, for example, Matthew 28:19), just as in the Old Testament there was the command for the men of God to be circumcised once for all time. While there may be, and indeed are, many errors associated with Romish baptism, despite this it still is a triune baptism, and hence should not be repeated. It is similar to the issue of marriage. Marriage, Biblically speaking, is a mutual covenant between a man and a woman to be husband and wife, til death do they part. Now Rome has associated many errors with this marriage covenant, such as turning it into a sacrament, replete with sacramental symbols like the wedding ring. Such Romish additions are wrong, but it does not invalidate the marriage covenant itself. Hence, a married couple leaving the Romish Church should be considered already married upon entry into a Protestant church. It would be quite unwarranted to consider the original marriage vows as invalid, since such vows in themselves are Biblically endorsed.
Closely connected with this issue of catabaptism is the issue of whether the Roman Catholic Church should be considered part of the visible Christian church in any sense. Catabaptists almost uniformly deny that the Roman Catholic Church should be considered part of the visible Christian church in any sense. (Thornwell, for instance, alleged that the Roman Catholic Church is no more Christian than a Hindu assembly.) Regarding whether the Romish Church led by the Papacy is to be regarded at least in some sense within the visible Christian church, it is important to be aware of the testimony of scripture, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Protestant Reformers. Here is what John Calvin in his Commentaries wrote concerning that question, in his treatment on II Thessalonians 2:
3. Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition;
4. Who opposeth and exhalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he, as God, sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God.
In the temple of God. By this one term there is a sufficient refutation of the error, nay more, the stupidity of those who reckon the Pope to be Vicar of Christ, on the ground that he has his seat in the Church, in whatever manner he may conduct himself; for Paul places Antichrist nowhere else than in the very sanctuary of God. For this is not a foreign, but a domestic enemy, who opposes Christ under the very name of Christ. But it is asked, how the Church is represented as the den of so many superstitions, while it was destined to be the pillar of the truth? (1 Timothy 3:15.) I answer, that it is thus represented, not on the ground of its retaining all the qualities of the Church, but because it has something of it remaining. I accordingly acknowledge, that that is the temple of God in which the Pope bears rule, but at the same time profaned by innumerable sacrileges…
…Let no man deceive you by any means; for that day shall not come except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition.—2 Thess. II. 3.
…Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or is worshipped; so that he, as God, sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God.—2 THES. II. 4.
…By the temple of God is meant the church: 1 Cor. iii. 16, 17, ‘Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.’ So 2 Cor. vi. 16, ‘What agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God.’ The external visible church, which professeth the faith of Christ and beareth his name; so that the place wherein Antichrist shall arise is the visible Christian church; not Rome ethnic, but Christian…
But is, then, the church of Rome the church of Christ?
Ans. It was one part of it before it was perverted; it usurpeth still that name; it retaineth some relic of a church, mangled as it is. Saith Calvin in his Epistles: ‘I think I have given some strong reasons that it yet retaineth some show of a church.’ Now in this temple of God he sitteth as an officer and bishop there, as I before explained it: and whereas other princes are said to reign so many years, the Pope is said to sit so long. It is his sedes, his cathedral or seat. And again, here he is said to sit as God, that is, as God incarnate, for Christ is the true and proper Lord of the church; none should reign there but he. And the name of this man of sin is not Antitheos, but anticristos; not one that directly invadeth the properties of the supreme God, but of God incarnate, or Christ as Mediator: he sitteth negatively, not as a minister, but positively as supreme lord upon earth, whom all must adore and worship, and kings and princes kiss his feet. In short, he usurpeth the authority due to Christ…
There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God. (The Westminster Confession of Faith)
As both Calvin and Manton and the host of other Reformers knew, “the Temple of God” spoken of in II Thessalonians 2:4 is the visible Christian church. It is why the Pope, like Judas Iscariot, bears the title Son of Perdition in II Thessalonians 2:3, because he is a traitor within the Church, and not merely an external enemy. To deny that the Pope “exalts [not merely was exalted in the past] himself, in the Church” is to contradict the Westminster Confession, and, much more importantly, it contradicts scripture. The Pope is in the visible Church in a similar sense in which Ahab and Jezebel were in Israel and Judas Iscariot was in the Church. The Pope’s show of being Christian is not genuine (just as Judas Iscariot’s was not genuine), and none should take leave to be part of his idolatrous Mass or apostatized church, any more than Old Testament believers should have taken part in the idolatrous services of Ahab and Jezebel. Christians should separate themselves from the Man of Sin’s church, even while acknowledging that over the course of history there may have been some genuine Christians caught up in it, swayed by the truths it holds (such as the doctrine of the Trinity, opposition to abortion, etc.), and being too forgiving or ignorant of its heinous corruptions.
As already stated, the issue of catabaptism is closely connected to that of whether the Romish Church is part of the visible Christian church. Though the northern tribes of Israel had become religiously corrupted by their idolatry, they were not so lost that their circumcisions were counted as no circumcisions. There yet remained a sense in which these northern tribes were part of the overall visible Israel, even as I have quoted above Calvin as noting. We should be clear that John Calvin, even in his post-Trent writings, rejected catabaptism. For instance, he wrote: “"'As in ancient times..., so in the present day [please note, a post-Trent day]..., we deny not to the Papists those vestiges of a church which the Lord has allowed to remain among them.... The covenant of the Lord continued there [among the impious Israelites], and His faith could not be obliterated by their perfidy. Nor could circumcision be so profaned by their impure hands as not still to be a true sign and sacrament of His covenant....So, having deposited his covenant in Gaul, Italy, Germany, Spain and England, when these countries were oppressed by the tyranny of the [papal] antichrist, He, in order that His covenant might remain inviolable, first preserved baptism there as an evidence of the covenant -- baptism which, consecrated by His lips, retains its power in spite of human depravity....' (Institutes, again post-Trent, 1559 edition, IV:2:11)."
In his book Catabaptism in the Presbyterian Church in America (found at http://www.dr-fnlee.org/docs3/citpcia/citpcia.pdf ), Dr. Francis Nigel Lee helpfully traces the history of doctrinal discussion concerning catabaptism. Dr. Lee documents how all the reformed Protestant churches during the time of the Reformation rejected catabaptism. He has an extended section covering John Calvin’s rejection of catabaptism, and that after the Council of Trent had already taken place. Dr. Lee also shows how the Westminster divines, as well as the Church of Scotland which adopted the Westminster Standards, rejected catabaptism. This is especially relevant for churches like the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland which constitutionally adhere to the doctrines of the Westminster Standards, in the sense they were originally adopted by the Church of Scotland. When the Church of Scotland adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith, it understood WCF 28:7 (“VII. The sacrament of Baptism is but once to be administered unto any person.”) to preclude re-baptism of those previously baptized by a triune baptism in the Roman Catholic Church, as well as in other Christian denominations. There is no constitutional right to change that position now.
Dr. Lee notes how all of the following took an anti-catabaptist position:
“We have been looking at Calvinism on the validity of triune baptisms even when
administered in the Roman Catholic Church. Significantly, not just every Lutheran
leader but also every Reformed theologian affirmed the unrepeatability of 'Romish
baptism.' Thus: Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, Henry Bullinger, John Calvin,
Theodore Beza, John Knox, Guido De Bres, Peter Datheen, Francis Junius, and many
Calvin wrote his Institutes -- to prove that the Reformers were not Anabaptists. He
approved of the antirebaptism taught by the Romish Council of Trent. He opposed
Rome's ritualistic additions to baptism, and her ex opere operato theory. Yet he
asserted the validity of all triune baptisms, even when administered by heretics (such as
Anabaptists and Romanists). For he insisted that Rome, impure and dilapidated
indeed, was still part of the Christian Church -- even in spite of her being oppressed for
many centuries by the papal antichrist. Hence, he decisively rejected the Catabaptists'
rebaptizing of all converted Ex-Romanists previously "baptized in the papacy."
Institutes IV:15:16. And he enjoined Knox to do the same.
Knox did so. He too regarded not the Romanists but the Anabaptists as "the enemies
most to be feared." Indeed, he and his Scottish associates clearly declared that "we
damn the error of the Anabaptists." While indeed condemning Rome as 'the false
Kirk' in the First Scots Confession, in the First Book of Discipline the Knoxians
provided for the utilization of rehabilitated Ex-Romish former priests -- as 'Precentors'
and 'Readers' in the Reformed Church of Scotland!
In the fifteen-sixties, the Belgic Confession in Holland and the Heidelberg Catechism
in Germany and the Second Helvetic Confession in Switzerland were all
anticatabaptist. By 1576, Romanists and Protestants had universally agreed to
recognize one another's baptisms. The Second Book of Discipline of 1578 and the
Second Scots Confession of 1580 are officially anticatabaptist. So too are the
decisions of: the 1581 Dutch Synod of Middelburg and the French Reformed Church;
the 1615 Irish Articles; the 1618f Synod of Dordt; and the 1643f Westminster
Of the British Westminster divines, George Gillespie and Samuel Rutherford are
known to have been officially anticatabaptist. So too were Cocceius and Wendelin in
Germany; Turretin and Pictet in Switzerland; and Marckius, Riissen, Mastricht and De
Moor in Holland. The British Puritans John Owen, David Dickson and Matthew
Henry -- and Jonathan Edwards in America -- all seem to have been so. Indeed, there
is no trace of any catabaptism at all among American Calvinists -- until the fateful 1845
General Assembly of the declining PCUSA…
Anticatabaptist Reformed theologians since Thornwell's time onward, include:
Heinrich Heppe in Germany; the Dutchmen Gravemeijer, Kuyper, Bavinck, and
Berkouwer; the Free Church of Scotland's William Cunningham and 'Rabbi' Duncan;
the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland's Cameron, MacIntyre, Beaton, Macfarlane,
Macqueen and Maclean; the American Calvinists Warfield, Berkhof, McIntire,
Buswell, Hoeksema, and Boice; Heyns (and all other Reformed theologians absolutely)
in South Africa; and the Reformed Ecumenical Synod worldwide…”
Consider these other instructive excerpts from Dr. Lee’s book:
Explains Dr. Thompson:704 "It has been argued by some that Calvin and other
Reformers were viewing a Roman Catholic Church not yet 'officially' or 'formally'
apostatized, and therefore could countenance their baptism as valid though highly
irregular. By extension then, they argue that until the Council of Trent, the Church of
Rome was not apostate.... This [so they reason] is the same argument used by those
today who refuse to recognize the blatant and flagrant departure from the faith by
churches such as the PCUSA.
"The Council of Trent met several times over a period of years, beginning in 1545.
[Yet] the bulk of the Council's work was completed well before 1559 -- the date of the
edition of Calvin's Institutes quoted herein. Calvin and the Reformers were fully
aware of the departure from the faith by the Roman Catholic Church. Their scathing
condemnation of heresies and perversions are well documented. They certainly did
not await the outcome of the Council of Trent before pronouncing the judgment of
God upon that Church's apostasy.
"It is clear that they recognized, even as we should also, that Trent did not establish or
constitute the apostasy of the Church of Rome. It simply codified and documented
that apostasy from which the Reformers had previously removed themselves.
Furthermore, the Council of Trent did not change the Roman Catholic doctrine of
baptism from what it was before the Tridentine Council convened."
…all American Presbyterian Churches before 1845, some since, and all American Reformed Churches, have always held to the validity of ‘Romish’ baptism -- as too has the Church of all ages in general and all of the Protestant Reformers and their Confessions of Faith in particular…the unrepeatable baptismal teaching of the Westminster Confession 28:7 and the Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 177 -- as rigorously required by strict subscriptionism. Far more serious yet, …the infallible Word of God. Exodus 4:24-26; Acts 8:12-23; Romans 6:3-13; Ephesians 4:4-6; Hebrews 6:1-6.
"Catabaptists within the 'Presbyterian Church in America' have previously postulated
that Calvin wrote his 1536f Institutes before the 1545f Romish Council of Trent -- and
that Calvin would not have maintained his anticatabaptism thereafter. Significantly,
however, his anticatabaptism is still found in his last and definitive edition of the
Institutes (of 1559). "Indeed, even in his 1547f 'post-Trent' treatises -- such as his Antidote to the Seventh Session of the Council of Trent and his True Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and his Appendix to the True Method of Reforming the Church -- Calvin stoutly maintains his attacks against the heterodox Catabaptists."
Calvin's 1559f French Confession that "some trace of the Church is left in the papacy.... The virtue and substance of baptism remain" there, so that "those baptized in it do not need a second baptism."
He also cited from Calvin's last work, his 1564 Commentary on Ezekiel (16:20-21).
There, the dying Ex-Romish Reformer claimed that "our baptism does not need
renewal -- because, although the devil has long reigned in the papacy, yet he could not
altogether extinguish God's grace. Nay, a Church is among them!" Lee then further cited from the declarations about Romish priests made by the French Reformed Synod of 1581. "Since authority to baptize belongs to them according to the order of the Romish Church, baptism administered by them is not to be repeated." He also cited the 1618f Synod of Dordt decision forbidding the baptizing of Ex- Romish Protestants formerly baptized in Romanism -- where "the form and substance of the rite have been retained."
In that paper Calvinism versus Catabaptism, Dr. Nigel Lee contrasted the two
different baptismal positions of Calvinism and Catabaptism. There, he accuses724
Catabaptism of falsely teaching "that Roman Catholicism is a totally pagan religion and
not even a false part of the Christian Church at all. For Catabaptism regards alleged
baptisms, although indeed performed in the Name of the Triune God, as being no
baptism at all -- whenever performed by or under the direction of Rome.
"Accordingly, Catabaptists regards Romanists as unbaptized pagans -- so that all
converts from Romanism are regarded as still needing baptism. Needless to say,
Catabaptism is not principally Protestant at all.
"Catabaptism rightly opposes Romanism. Wrongly, however, it also opposes
consistent Calvinism. Some inconsistent Catabaptists have preserved infant baptism,
and actually call themselves not just Calvinists but sometimes even Presbyterians. The
more consistent Catabaptists, however, have abandoned even that. Many of them
then end up calling themselves 'Calvinist Baptists' -- a gross contradiction in terms.
…on the matter of baptism, the Catabaptists are quite irreconcilable with that
greatest of all Calvinists -- the 1547f John Calvin himself. Catabaptism is also quite
irreconcilable with those greatest of all Calvinistic documents -- the doctrinal standards
of the 1647f renowned Westminster Assembly."
Rev. Dr. Lee then shows that the Counter-Reformation's Council of Trent finished
setting forth the Romish doctrine of baptism at her Seventh Session in 1547. Calvin
then responded in his Antidote to Trent, in which he fully upheld the essential validity
and unrepeatability of 'Romish baptism' -- in spite of all its errors.725
After next quoting from Calvin's Institutes to the same effect, Dr. Nigel Lee shows726
that also the Westminster Standards themselves uphold the same doctrine.
Our conclusion then, must surely be: once baptized, always baptized. Once branded
as God's saved sheep or little lamb in His own Triune Name -- by grace and through
faith, we unlosably and therefore unrepeatably thenceforth bear His Name forever!
I fully concur with the quotes above of Dr. Lee. We should not move from the Biblical Protestant position of baptism to the heretical, subjectivist catabaptistic position.